January 21st, 2019
St. Francis of Assisi Church sits on the corner of Brown Street and Vel Phillips Avenue. Vel Phillips Avenue was, until recently, called 4th Street. Vel Phillips was a noted local civil rights activist, along with being an alderperson and judge in Milwaukee. She also served as the Secretary of State for Wisconsin. Phillips died last year, and this street (which is located in her neighborhood) was given her name.
St. Francis parish is in the Brewer’s Hill area of Milwaukee, just a bit to the northwest of downtown. It’s a working class, black neighborhood that is gradually becoming gentrified. The parish is run by Capuchin priests, who are part of a Franciscan order in the Roman Catholic Church. Capuchins (and Franciscans in general) are deeply concerned with the poor, the excluded, and the unloved. This means that they ally themselves with other people who work to help the marginalized in society. This means that work for social justice. This means that they are political.
The Capuchins would probably agree with this quote from Gandhi:
“Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”
I say this because, for the last eighteen years, the priests at St Francis have allowed Peace Action of Wisconsin to use the church for its annual commemoration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Action is not a religious group. However, many people of faith work with Peace Action. I know. I work with them, and there are people who accuse me of being a person of faith. In any case, Peace Action held its memorial service today, inside the warmth of the church, while the cold and snow of the Wisconsin winter held sway outside. I have been to this service several times over the years, and my one consistent memory is of cold and snow.
Karin and I arrived at today’s service a few minutes late. It wasn’t a big deal. People straggled into the church long after we showed up. A young, black woman handed us a program as we entered the door. There were musicians playing some introductory music when we took out seats. The group gathered in the church was biracial; an even split between white and black. The congregation was rather grey (in hair color). Maybe a lot of the young folk had to work, so it was mostly older people sitting in the pews.
After we got comfortable, a couple of my friends from Voces de la Frontera came inside and sat a couple rows in front of us (Voces is an immigrant rights organization where I have volunteered for a long time). This was about the time that we were all singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (the Black National Anthem). It’s a good song. I found it inspiring, and I don’t inspire easily. After the song ended, I went up to greet Mario and Christine from Voces.
These sorts of services for Dr. King have a pattern to them. There is usually a general greeting. Then the MC will call out people who may have had personal relationships with Martin Luther King. Based on the fact that King died in 1968, there aren’t many of these folks left. However, some still live, and they remember, and we are grateful that they do.
While this was going on, Mario came back to our row, and he sidled up next to me. He asked quietly,
“You been arrested?”
I found his question confusing at first. Yes, I have been arrested for civil disobedience (CD), but I thought he was asking if I wanted to get busted again. I told him,
“Hey, I have to take care of somebody who is on probation. Karin and I are her only life line. I can’t go to jail right now.”
Mario hurried to answer, “No, no, no. I meant ‘have you been arrested in a protest?’ ”
Mario went on, “Would you like to stand up with these women from Voces to get recognized for doing that?”
“I got busted, but it wasn’t for anything I did with Voces.”
Mario went on, “Yeah, I know, but you have been with Voces for so long. It would count for us.”
It didn’t feel right somehow. I went to jail for CD in Nevada in 2017 while I protesting against drone warfare. That doesn’t have much of anything to do with immigration rights. Also, even after two years, I don’t know why I did that action. Was it because I was fighting for social justice? Was it because I felt intense loyalty to another guy at the demonstration? Was it because I’m just a fucking idiot?
I told Mario, “I don’t think so.”
Mario said softly, “It’s okay. It’s your decision.” Then he went back to his seat.
I talked to Karin about it.
“Mario wants me to stand up when these other people from Voces stand. They were all arrested.”
Karin asked me, “Do you want to do that?”
“No, not really.”
She looked at me firmly and said,
End of subject.
At this time, a young, black man, DiMonte Henning, started reading from King’s sermon at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967.
DiMonte recited King’s words: ”
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.”
It’s hard to listen to those words. It’s hard to know that what I have done is so little. Sometimes I feel like I’m just playing. It feels like I haven’t sacrificed hardly anything.
George Martin, a leader at Peace Action, got up to the microphone. He recognized all those who had risked arrest and imprisonment for justice. When somebody from the congregation stood up, we all said, “Thank you”. I didn’t stand up. Maybe I should have. I don’t know. Honestly, it didn’t feel right. I’m just a guy.
There were other speakers. Joyce Ellwanger, a long time activist, spoke about her actions to protest at the School of the Americas in Georgia. She did six months in federal prison for her efforts. After her came a young man, Solo Littlejohn, who has been busted repeatedly for his fight to get a $15 minimum wage. He said this:
“As a person of color, I didn’t like getting arrested. I felt scared. But, if had not been for Dr. King and his fight, it would have been much worse for me and for others.”
There was some music after Solo spoke. The musicians sang “What’s going on?” from Marvin Gaye. Then we all sang “We Shall Overcome”.
I guess I am just a sentimental fool. That song made me cry.